Iraq War's Statistics Prove Fleeting
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff WriterMonday, March 19, 2007; Page A01
The U.S. war in Iraq enters its fifth year today. That, and 3,197 U.S. military deaths reported by the Pentagon as of 10 a.m. Friday, are among the few numerical certainties in a conflict characterized from the start by confusion and misuse of key data.
In the fog of modern counterinsurgency warfare, statistics have replaced conquered territory as measures of success. Then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld once dismissed questions about the level of combat-ready Iraqi troops by saying that numbers are only numbers and "misleading" as to the truth, but the Bush administration has supplied a steady stream of them.
The administration began quantifying the conflict long before the U.S. invasion on March 19, 2003, warning that Saddam Hussein had not accounted for "29,984" chemical munitions and "tens of thousands of teaspoons" of anthrax. "Nearly two dozen" al-Qaeda extremists were said to be operating in Baghdad. Alternative counts on these and other subjects were rejected as partisan or uninformed.
In January, after years of fluctuating deployments, President Bush told the nation that an additional 21,500 U.S. troops were needed to quell escalating violence in Baghdad. As of Friday, that total had reached 28,700.
Since the war began, Congress and the public have demanded precise accountings -- often of things that are difficult or impossible to quantify. Critics have sometimes misused data to argue that things were getting worse.
Some government calculations have been meticulous, even when belying claims of progress. Weekly tallies of oil produced, electricity supplied and construction projects completed have invariably fallen below stated goals. The military has provided public accounts of failing troop readiness and recruitment.
But the administration and the military have also muddied bottom lines by altering targets and categories of data. Multiple regular and special accounts have made it difficult to compute total war spending. Detainee numbers have oscillated, depending on whether the objective was to tout achievements or conceal secret prisoners. Convenient guesses have at times been offered as fact.
"In February, Iraqi and coalition forces conducted just over 200 operations against al-Qaeda objectives, having killed over 100 terrorists and capturing over 400 terrorists," Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad last week.
Later in the briefing, Caldwell said he was sure about the 100 killed but said the 400 captured "will go through a screening process" to determine "whether or not they in fact were associated with the terrorists . . . or whether they were perhaps just innocent bystanders."
Two categories of data -- insurgent and civilian Iraqi deaths, and the training and deployment of Iraqi security forces -- illustrate how flexible the numbers can be.
"We don't do body counts on other people," Rumsfeld said during the war's ninth month, a tacit reference to the statistical excesses of Vietnam. Yet that rule has been bent repeatedly, with scant explanation of how figures are compiled.
On April 6, 2003, the Pentagon listed 61 U.S. soldiers and Marines killed or missing in action, while officers in the midst of battle estimated that "2,000 to 3,000" Iraqi combatants had been killed during a single tank incursion into central Baghdad. A year and a half later, as the U.S. death toll topped 1,000, Rumsfeld observed that in August 2004 alone, U.S. and coalition forces "probably" killed between 1,500 and 2,500 terrorists and criminals. In January 2005, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., then the top U.S. military officer in Iraq, estimated that U.S. and Iraqi forces had killed or captured 15,000 enemy fighters in 2004 -- three times as many as an estimate by Gen. John P. Abizaid, then-Centcom commander, of the total size of the insurgency about one year earlier.
The number of enemy losses, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told The Washington Post about 2 1/2 years into the war, is "a metric that can help convey magnitude and context" after a battle. Military officials said the release of such numbers helps bolster the morale of U.S. forces. But there is no way for outsiders to verify them.
Civilian casualties have proved even harder to pin down. Before the war, the United Nations predicted that they could reach 500,000; once it started, critics claimed thousands of civilian deaths. But in his May 1, 2003, "Mission Accomplished" speech, Bush said the use of precision weapons had largely diminished noncombatant deaths.
On Dec. 12, 2005, Bush offered his first and only number of Iraqi casualties: "30,000, more or less," without distinguishing between enemies and noncombatants. The independent, London-based Iraq Body Count offered a similar figure for civilians only -- 34,516 to 38,661 Iraqis dead by early 2006.
The group's most recent tally, drawn from global media accounts, estimated civilian deaths between 59,287 and 65,121, as of yesterday. The British medical journal Lancet estimated 100,000 civilian casualties in the 18 months after the invasion, and in October it raised its total to 600,000. On the low end, the independent, U.S.-based Iraq Coalition Casualty Count placed the one-year total from March 2006 to last weekend, including Iraqi security forces, at 21,186.
The United Nations, using reports from Iraqi morgues, hospitals and local authorities, placed the 2006 figure at 34,000 -- three times the official Iraqi government count. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office ordered the country's health ministry to stop providing figures to the United Nations.
The Defense Department does not release detailed tallies of Iraqi casualties, but in an Iraq security assessment published last week it said the number decreased in January "but remained troublingly high." Noting that only incidents "reported to or observed by Coalition forces" were included, it said that the U.N. estimate of more than 6,000 civilians killed or wounded in December was "about twice as many casualties as were recorded by Coalition forces."
Bush has vowed that "as Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." Yet the administration's calculations of the size and capability of Iraqi security forces have often been difficult to follow.
In March 2004, Rumsfeld announced "very good progress" in training Iraqi forces, whose numbers had increased "from zero to over 200,000." Nearly a year later, in February 2005, he gave the total as 136,065. At that point, Gen. Richard B. Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated that fewer than a third of them were capable of fighting.
According to Jeff Miller, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, official figures over the years "reveal a painfully clear pattern of overselling the pace and quality of Iraqi force training." One reason for the repeated discrepancies has been frequent changes in the way the Iraqis are counted.
The figures offered by Rumsfeld and Myers often bore little relation to tallies provided in weekly unclassified Pentagon reports. In late 2003, progress toward the Pentagon's goal of 221,700 trained police and military forces was divided into categories of Iraqis "currently operating" and those "currently in training." By June 2004, as the goal increased to 259,869, the two categories were melded, and "untrained" forces -- more than four-fifths of both the police and the army at the time -- were listed as "on duty" along with those trained.
In September 2004, the "on duty" category was renamed, and 231,560 Iraqis were described as "on hand."
After critics questioned the figures, "on hand" was subsumed into a new category -- "Iraqi Security Forces Trained/On Hand" -- and the total fell to fewer than 100,000. One reason was that the Pentagon stopped including nearly 80,000 members of Iraq's Facilities Protection Service, untrained guards under the control of various Iraqi government ministries.
More recently, as training for the now-135,000-member national police force has been largely turned over to Iraqis, U.S. officials have acknowledged that the force is partially infiltrated by Shiite militias. Meanwhile, the military is concentrating on the Iraqi army, described by Bush in his announcement of a new strategy on Jan. 10 as "essential to the U.S. security mission."
According to a chart in last week's Pentagon assessment, the number of "Trained Iraqi Security Forces" now totals 328,700. A disclaimer noted that "the actual number of those present-for-duty soldiers is about one-half to two-thirds of the total due to scheduled leave, absence without leave, and attrition."
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.